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Best of Columbia 2020: Writers' PIcks

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Fat Rat da Czar is Best Local Hip-Hop Artist according to Jordan Lawrence. 

Local Media

Best Local Website – Sports –

The last time I checked, this was a Gamecocks town. And the best Gamecocks coverage in Columbia still comes out of The State newspaper and its banner. Whether it’s football, men’s or women’s basketball, baseball or recruiting, the in-depth columns, stories and analysis from this site help USC fans stay on top of what’s happening with the Gamecocks. — CHRIS TRAINOR

Politics and City Life

Best Family Attraction — Frankie’s Fun Park

My daughter and I love going out to Frankie’s on a Sunday afternoon. We’ll play video games, blow too much money trying to get stuffed animals out of the skill-crane machines and try to build up enough “tickets” for her to get a few things from the prize redemption stand. But the best part is the go-kart track. The need for speed is real, even if it’s at a fun park go-kart track on a Sunday afternoon and you’re competing against the attendees of a sixth-grade birthday party. — CHRIS TRAINOR

Arts, Music and Entertainment

Best Bar to See Live Music — New Brookland Tavern

The local music scene has slowed to a trickle of its normal self during COVID-19, and one of the most palpable ways I feel that is the continued lack of shows at New Brookland Tavern. More than any other room in town, this is where many threads of the music community meet. Punk, metal, indie rock, hip-hop, country, all have their nights (with varying frequency) at NBT, with crowds showing up to ring around the stage, there for the music and to keep the flame alive. Here’s hoping we get to light it up again soon. JORDAN LAWRENCE

Best Local Band — Prettier Than Matt

This is a weird year to crown a best local band, as many of the avenues, particularly the live ones, through which Columbia musicians reach their audiences have been choked out by the continuing pandemic. So I’ll just give it up to a group that has leaned into one of its strengths during this trying time, using live-streams through various outlets as a means for engagement and to make actual money during these trying times. And, with folk-pop that’s sweetly melodic and consistently buoyant, PrettierThan Matt’s vibe is a nice antidote for these anxious days. — JORDAN LAWRENCE

Best Local Hip-Hop Artist — Fat Rat da Czar

We don’t byline our writeups for our annual Power List of 50 people who get stuff done in the Capital City, but I feel the need to resurrect my anonymous points about Fat Rat da Czar from June 24:  

“2020 was looking to be the year, or at least a big year, for Fat Rat da Czar and all that the local rapper, producer and leader of Love, Peace & Hip-Hop and its annual Hip-Hop Family Day block party has done for Columbia. Following a 2019 that brought two well-received records, one a double album that assembled much of South Carolina’s best talent to pay tribute to the state’s underrated hip-hop history, he curated an exhibit showcasing that history at the Columbia Museum of Art and booked the famed Rakim for his community-boosting festival. COVID-19 put Hip-Hop Family Day on hold, but the momentum Fat Rat has helped generate for Soda City hip-hop remains.”

He’s the best rapper in Columbia. And also more than that. Hail to the Czar. — JORDAN LAWRENCE

Best Movie Theater — The Big Mo

Going to the movies has been a challenge in 2020. For the most part, traditional indoor theaters have been closed since March amid the novel coronavirus pandemic. That has thrown a bit of a spotlight on drive-ins, many of which have continued to operate in some capacity. Though its screenings have been limited this summer, The Big Mo drive-in in Monetta has given moviegoers an option, with concerts and special film series. And, pandemic or no, the three-screen theater has always been a charmer. There remains something special about sitting out under the stars and watching a movie. Long live the drive-in. — CHRIS TRAINOR

Food and Drink

Duke's Pad Thai crispy rice

Chris Trainor says Duke’s Pad Thai is Best Asian Restaurant.

Best Asian Restaurant — Duke’s Pad Thai

In the last couple years, Duke’s Pad Thai Street Food and Noodle Bar has quickly become one of my favorite places to eat in the Columbia area. The pad Thai — as you might imagine — is phenomenal, though my favorite item on the menu might be the Sweet and Spicy Ramen. This is the type of place that’s so good that you are actually sad when all the food is gone from your plate. Get across the river to Duke’s. — CHRIS TRAINOR

Best Taco — Go to a Taco Truck

If you haven’t gone out and explored the Midlands’ many great taco trucks, you’re missing a treasure trove of meat-on-tortilla treats. From Taqueria El Jarocho Express to Los Chicanos to Tacos Doña Lucia to Tacos El Primo, the great mobile taco vendors in the Columbia area are many. Check them out. — JORDAN LAWRENCE

Best Barbecue — True BBQ

You know you’re in for a treat when you roll up to this hole-in-the-wall spot on D Avenue in West Columbia, because it’s usually smoking meat on a big grill right out in front of the restaurant. True — a quirkily decorated institution with a kind and helpful staff — is known for its hash, and it is, indeed, something to write home about. But don’t sleep on the chopped pork barbecue. It’s smoky, juicy and delicious, and the signature Pretty Lady sauce sends it over the top. — CHRIS TRAINOR

Best Fast Food Chain — Rush’s

Rush’s, a relatively small chain, still seems like a secret of the Columbia area. Let’s keep it that way: small and special. I love everything about it, right down to the way they call the orders back to the kitchen on that old-school microphone. Many people laud the burgers here, and for good reason. But the chicken sandwich also is a winner. While everyone wants to fight over whether Chick-fil-A or Popeyes has the best chicken sandwich, I’ll take Rush’s version any day of the week. — CHRIS TRAINOR

Best Grits — Keg Cowboy

Keg Cowboy has been a key part of the reinvigoration of Main Street in Lexington in recent years, and its deep roster of craft beer and creative food menu keep it at the top of my list in town. But the grits here are on another level. Y’all, these grits will give you superpowers, I swear. OK, maybe that’s a wild exaggeration. But they are damn good, and make an excellent side with the Keg’s beef on weck. — CHRIS TRAINOR

Best Hamburger — Home Team BBQ

When Charleston’s Home Team BBQ set up shop in Columbia Five Points, I had an idea of what to expect from the barbecue and ribs, as I had visited the locations in the Holy City. But what I wasn’t aware of before it landed in Columbia was how amazing the Fiery Ron’s burger is. The two beef patties are typically cooked to perfection, and the slab of house-made bacon, along with harissa mayo and the requisite veggies, make for a perfect concoction on a King’s Hawaiian bun. — CHRIS TRAINOR

Best Hot Dog — Jimmy’s Mart

Before I moved to the Midlands six years ago, I was somehow unaware that there was a difference between the style of hot dogs here and those where I grew up, in the Upstate. The dogs here seem to utilize, for lack of better terms, a wetter, redder chili than those in the Upstate, where darker, meatier chili is more common. In Columbia, Jimmy’s Mart is the closest I’ve found to my native favorites. The hot dogs — I take them with the wienie, chili, mustard and onion — are flavorful, and the camaraderie and people-watching in the always busy store is top-notch. — CHRIS TRAINOR

Camon soup

David Clarey chooses Camon for Best Japanese Restaurant.

Best Japanese Restaurant — Camon

I’ll admit my experience frequenting Japanese restaurants in Columbia is limited, yet since moving here last year I’ve been utterly charmed and thrilled with my trips to Camon near downtown. There’s few dining memories I have loved more than watching Chef Kobayashi diligently slice and prepare sushi for me, before I experience it. — DAVID CLAREY

Best New Restaurant — Il Focolare

Are restaurants political places? Can they be spaces where radical things happen? If one agrees that the state of the worker is indeed a political thing, then in an industry where wages and working conditions are notoriously harsh, Sarah Simmons, Aaron Hoskins and their staff are proving to Columbians that the answer is “Yes.” They intentionally buck those poor conditions and push themselves and the oft-antiquated restaurant business model to do so. That alone is worthwhile, and with their Cottontown pizza shop, where they make what may be the best pies in Columbia, they show their worker-friendly business model can be scaled up. — DAVID CLAREY

The War Mouth dining room

David Clarey makes a case for The War Mouth as Best Restaurant.

Best Restaurant — The War Mouth

Truly rousing restaurants are fun. They achieve this through plates that make you raise your eyebrows, at times, blush at times, and, at others, wonder. Cottontown’s The War Mouth checks these boxes in a way unlike others I’ve seen, where the staff, interior, drinks and food meld together beautifully. In my short few months living in the Midlands, I’ve grown quickly attached and gravitated to it. It’s provided a reminder that restaurants should be, among many things, as fun as they are delicious and reflect the place where they reside. — DAVID CLAREY

Best Restaurant — Lexington — Keg Cowboy

There are so many things to love about Keg Cowboy, the bar that is one of several restaurants and bars that have popped up in Lexington’s Main Street corridor. It’s got a laid-back vibe that makes you feel comfortable. The pizza — only available on certain nights — is the best in Lexington. The Cuban Refugee smoked pork loin sandwich is delicious. The beer is always cold. And the fresh-baked pretzels are transcendent. Check Keg Cowboy out. — CHRIS TRAINOR

Best Wings — Transmission Arcade/Smokey Loggins

The first time I ate a Smokey Loggins chicken wing it came after much talk. Coworkers would ask in reverent tones if I’d tried them yet. And once I had, I knew why. There’s few others in the area that have rivaled them — the wings are smoked gold. Yet, maybe most impressive is the consistent quality they’ve maintained throughout my handful of trips. — DAVID CLAREY

Best Wings — Vella’s Restaurant and Tavern

I’ll admit this is a somewhat sentimental pick. Sure, the wings at Vella’s in Cayce are quite good. Damn good, in fact. Meaty, flavorful and available in a host of different sauces. But my love for Vella’s goes further: Its where I often meet my brother and our friends before USC basketball games, for a drink and a bite before we head to the arena. During COVID-19 I miss being able to gather with friends in a noisy old tavern after work, laughing and commiserating before we go to a crowded coliseum to see a ballgame. I want that again soon. — CHRIS TRAINOR

Bars and Clubs

Best Craft Beer Selection — One of Our Great Beer Bars

Steel Hands brews some good beers. But with the Columbia area having great, attentively curated beer bars like WECO Bottle & Biergarten, The Pizza Joint, Keg Cowboy, and two Craft and Drafts, among others, I would have liked to see this category celebrate a spot that showcases a variety of different local, national and international breweries. — JORDAN LAWRENCE

Best Local Brewery — Columbia Craft Brewing Company

Delivering some of the best hazy IPAs in the Southeast as well as a selection of consistently satisfying sours, Columbia Craft is one of the most adventurous breweries in the area. It also offers one of the most reliable old-school IPAs available in Midlands grocery stores and a handful of extremely crushable traditional German lagers. It’s not just the best brewery in Columbia. It’s one of the best in the state. — JORDAN LAWRENCE

WECO bar

WECO is David Clarey’s preference for Best Neighborhood Bar — West Columbia/Cayce.

Best Neighborhood Bar — West Columbia/Cayce — WECO

Phill Blair diverted sharply from his more prominent and legendary bar The Whig when opening WECO in West Columbia. Yet after opening late last year, WECO has captured much of the same magic and  emerged as a true neighborhood haunt on the river’s other side. In a year where life has been upended, its particularly taken on a vital role with its growing reputation as a well-attended yet safe spot to sate your thirst. — DAVID CLAREY


Best Sporting Goods Store — Todd & Moore

Sure, there are bigger places. But so many times through the years I’ve found just what I’m looking for at Todd & Moore on Huger Street, whether it was Gamecock gear for game day, soccer cleats for my daughter’s fall season or ping-pong balls for the table in the old Free Times office on Main Street (RIP). Shop local. — CHRIS TRAINOR

Best Florist — Boone Fox Farm

It might seem a little crazy for someone to start their own floral company where they grow and pick each flower by hand, but Brinton Fox has done just that, and successfully too. Her flower CSAs, with pickups at Craft and Draft’s Devine Street location, are a genius way to get people in to pick up floral arrangements for the special people in their lives, especially with a built-in excuse to grab a beer. The farmer-florist is also always on hand to answer questions about her blooms and their care, or to offer a great beer suggestion.  — APRIL BLAKE

Silver Spoon Bakeshop petit fours

Silver Spoon Bakeshop is April Blake’s pick for Best Bakery.

Best Bakery — Silver Spoon Bake Shop

Nestled in a cute little house on Devine Street, everything about Silver Spoon Bake Shop is cute. The coffee station is cute, the macarons are cute, and the oversized “party fours” are cute. The cuteness carries over into its bubbly social media posts and delight to see each customer, not to mention its wildly popular Harry-Potter-themed day each summer. It’s even maintained and upped its cuteness in responding to COVID-19 by going online-only and having weekly porch pick-ups to keep Columbians happy with macarons in hand. — APRIL BLAKE

Pet Services

Best Kennel or Pet Boarding Facility — A Paw’s Paradise

When it comes to where you board your pets when you have to go out of town, you have to be comfortable with the facility you use. That’s the way our family feels about A Paw’s Paradise on Broad River Road. If we have to board our morkipoo, Ollie, while we are traveling, they always do an exemplary job of taking care of him, even providing photos of him playing with other dogs each day he is there. Ollie gets happy whenever we drop him off at A Paw’s Paradise, and if he’s happy, so are we. — CHRIS TRAINOR

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